Chris Healy was 13 years old when a hot-air balloon flew over his home and grabbed hold of his imagination. He jumped on his bike, pedaled after the balloon and, when it landed about a mile away, helped the pilot pack the balloon up. “You want a job?” the guy asked him, and that was it. Healy began riding in one of the “chase vehicles” that go get passengers at the end of a balloon ride, helping to pack the equipment up, and by 16 got his license and became a driver for the business. At 17, he started training to become a pilot, and by 18 was the youngest licensed commercial balloon pilot in the country.
That was in 1986. These days, he’s still a balloon pilot, but with 33 years of experience under his belt and his own business, Above the Clouds, which launches out of Randall Airport in Orange County’s Middletown and offers hot-air balloon rides over the lower Hudson Valley.
“The beauty of ballooning here is the topography,” Healy says. “It’s just a beautiful place to fly. I’ve flown most places in the country, and if you’re flying in California, or Arizona, out toward the desert, you’ve really got to like brown. And if you’re going to fly down South, you’ve got to like flat. But here we’ve got the Shawangunk Ridge to the north, we’ve got the valley carved out by a glacier and the Hudson River. Rolling green hills, farmland, lakes and streams: This really is one of the best areas in the whole country to fly in.”
People ask him all the time, he says, what it’s like to go up in a hot-air balloon. “And, you know, how do you describe a sunrise? It’s almost impossible. And you just don’t know until you’re there and you do it. People ask if it’s scary, and I say, ‘If you can stand still and breathe, you can do this. This is as easy as anything gets.’”
The balloon rises slowly enough that passengers don’t have the sensation of movement they’d have in a helicopter, for example, he explains, where your center of gravity shifts as the helicopter maneuvers and you’re aware of which direction you’re moving. “In a balloon, you don’t get any of that. You’re standing still. If you close your eyes and just stand there, you’ll literally think you’re in your living room – until you open your eyes and see you’re 1,000 feet above the ground.”
People who say they’re afraid of heights will tell him, “This isn’t bad at all,” once they’re up there, Healy says. Only one time in his decades of flying has he felt the need to land to let a nervous passenger off, and even then, it was more of a diplomatic gesture made to enable the man to save face with his guests who were enjoying their balloon ride.
Another reason why it’s not scary to be up in the balloon, he adds, is to picture how it is to be up on a ladder, where we can see the top and bottom of the ladder, so our brains perceive that we’re some distance from the ground. “But when you’re in a hot-air balloon, there’s no physical connection between you and the ground. You don’t get that sensation of height or scary altitude. Especially the way we do it: when the weather is good, which makes for nice, easy flights.”
Ideal conditions are winds less than five miles per hour and no rain. “We fly first thing in the morning, around sunrise, because that’s the time of day when the winds are light and calm. It makes for a very smooth takeoff, smooth flight and a smooth landing.”
That means that balloonists end up living “on the other side of the clock,” as Healy puts it. “You’re in bed early, and up early enjoying your sport. The great thing, though, is: We’re done by 7:30 in the morning. We’ve got the rest of the day, while some people are just getting up.”
Spring and summer are prime time for balloon flights. “When I was a younger man, I would get the equipment out after a beautiful freshly fallen snow and do a balloon flight; but the thing is, we don’t steer a balloon. We go whichever way the wind is blowing. So there has to be a landing field somewhere out there in front of you. But if you’ve got snow on the ground, all of those fields become inaccessible. And of course, there’s the cold that goes along with winter flying. I really don’t do much of it anymore. And most folks aren’t interested in it; once the leaves are off the trees, my phone stops ringing.”
Fall balloon trips, with the promise of beautiful foliage, are sought-after. But autumn weather conditions are unpredictable, and passengers need to be flexible with scheduling. “That time of year is probably the toughest time of the year to fly in the Northeast. It’s windy one day, raining the next, and then you’ll have beautiful sunshine. These are fast-moving weather patterns. And with fast-moving weather comes wind. So, we cancel more of the fall flights than the rest of the year. But when we do get them in, they’re spectacular.”
Hot-air balloons fly as low as treetop-level to as much as 3,000 feet up – or higher, if weather conditions allow. And logically enough, they travel at the speed of the wind. “If the wind is going ten miles an hour, we’re going ten miles an hour. And we’ll travel ten miles. At different altitudes, the winds blow different directions; but generally, the higher you go, the faster you go, and the lower you are, the calmer it is – which is why we really do want the wind at less than five miles an hour for the takeoff and landing. You can fly in a little bit more wind – those are sportier flights – but for the commercial venture that we’re doing, we want to make sure everybody is comfortable: nice and easy, no bump and drag when you come to a stop.”
Having grown up in Middletown, and with 3,000-plus flights out of Randall Airport at his last count, Healy is on his home turf when he takes passengers up, and knows exactly where he can and can’t land the balloon. “There are two farms in the area where the farmers have asked me not to land on their property. They’ve got crops, and I have no problem with that whatsoever. And every once in a while, you’ll come across a homeowner who just doesn’t want you landing in his yard. But that guy also hates puppy dogs and rainbows! Because who doesn’t want a hot-air balloon on their back yard?” Most homeowners will ask him to hang on while they wake the kids and get their camera, he adds.
Healy’s business, Above the Clouds, flies two large hot-air balloons and one smaller. The large balloons are 70 feet wide by 100 feet tall and have a 175,000-cubic-foot displacement capacity: comfortably able to lift six to eight passengers plus the pilot. The smaller balloon carries four passengers plus a pilot with its 105,000-cubic-foot displacement capacity. (To lift 1,000 pounds of weight, you need a minimum of 65,000 cubic feet of hot air – thus the huge size of hot-air balloons.)
The flights vary from 20 to 60 minutes in length. Tethered rides are also available, in which the balloon is tied down to three heavy vehicles to hold it in place as the pilot lets the balloon rise up on its ropes and then drops it down again, switching passengers each time to allow a group of people to have the experience.
Most people take a lot of photos during their hot-air balloon ride, says Healy, “and everybody wants to see a pretty balloon in their pictures, right? So, I have mine custom-made and I pick all the colors. You can buy a balloon from the factory, but you’ll get whatever they made. And I figure, if you’re building a balloon, use all the colors of the rainbow! Sometimes you’ll see an all-blue or an all-red balloon, and I’ll wonder, ‘Did they just run out of creativity that day?’ If you’ve got a big, beautiful balloon, make it colorful!”
Hot-air balloons are made of ripstop nylon, “heavier than a parachute but lighter than tent material,” he notes. Balloons are treated with a porosity coating to hold the heat in and another coating that functions as a sunscreen to protect the fabric from UV rays, the biggest culprit in fabric deterioration. The length of time a balloon lasts is based on the number of hours it’s used, with 800 to 1,000 flights the industry standard before a balloon needs repairs or replacement. Balloons at Above the Clouds are replaced after 500 to 600 hours of flight. “It costs more to keep a newer fleet, but everybody wants to look at a brand-new balloon,” says Healy.
His enthusiasm for what he does is evident. Even after 33 years in the business, Healy says that he wouldn’t trade his job for anything else. “This really is the absolute best thing. They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. And I’ve got to say there really is no feeling of ‘work’ in this for me. The alarm clock goes off early in the morning, but as soon as I hear it and I realize I’m going to go flying, I’m ready to go. So yeah, I absolutely love it. And so does everybody who works for me.”
The business employs two other pilots in addition to himself, all FAA-certified and participants in recurrent training programs. Passenger and logistics coordinator Deana takes care of everybody on the ground, and Healy has 10 to 12 crew members working with him at any given time. “These are usually young kids, and it’s a great summer job for them. I would say three-quarters of my guys come back to me every year, because it’s always a good time.”
Healy says it’s important to him that everybody he employs is happy in their work, because an attitude rubs off on everyone. “My guys are serious with what we do, but everybody is having a good time – and it shows.”
For more information about Above the Clouds, call (845) 360-5594 or visit https://abovethecloudsinc.com.